Rahmatullah Hamraz earned his master’s degree in the first class of the University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Harris. Then he returned to his homeland of Afghanistan to work for reform. When the Taliban seized power, his friends at UChicago worked tirelessly to help him and his family escape.

Rahmatullah Hamraz
Rahmatullah Hamraz, Assistant Director, International Policy and Development Program, and MAIDP'19

While watching the U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August of 2021, Misho Ceko kept thinking about his friend, Rahmatullah Hamraz, MAIDP’19.

The two met when Hamraz arrived on the University of Chicago campus from Afghanistan in 2018 to pursue a master’s degree and participate in the first class of the University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars Program. Their young families quickly bonded during the year Hamraz studied at the Harris School of Public Policy, where Ceko is Chief Operating Officer and Senior Associate Dean of Business Operations. Hamraz’s fortitude in becoming a UChicago Obama Scholar and his commitment to helping empower girls in Afghanistan were particularly compelling to Ceko.

After graduation in 2019, Hamraz returned to Afghanistan to work in the government of Ashraf Ghani. His role was driving administrative reforms.

In late summer of 2021, seeing how quickly the Taliban had taken over the country, Ceko checked on his friend via texts and WhatsApp messages.

“I could tell that he was worried,” Ceko recalled, “and I think he was particularly vulnerable, given his connection to the United States—that he studied here and had a lot of relationships here. And he knew he and his family had no future there.”

Those anxious electronic exchanges set off a grueling, at times bleak, 16-month odyssey in which many people and organizations worked to bring Hamraz to UChicago. Today, he is Assistant Director of the International Policy and Development Program at Harris.

“I’m really grateful to all of them,” Hamraz said, “to the University of Chicago, the Obama Foundation and my fellow UChicago Obama Scholars all over the world, and elected officials. Everyone was really worried about my situation and all of them helped me in some way. Without their help, it’s clear I wouldn’t be in the U.S.”

Arduous journey to scholarship

The struggles that Hamraz endured to return to UChicago resemble the life struggles he overcame to arrive on campus in the first place in 2018.

Born in 1986 in remote Afghanistan, Hamraz and his family endured financial instability for years. Despite that hardship, his irregular formal education, and ongoing military conflict in Afghanistan, Hamraz was a strong student who earned a scholarship to Punjab University in India and then a scholarship to American University of Afghanistan, where he received his MBA.

Timeline of Important Dates in Hamraz's Life

While there, he won a prestigious social entrepreneurship award for designing an economic empowerment program that gave laying hens to women. After completing his MBA, he was among the inaugural class of 25 scholars who came to Harris to earn master’s degrees in International Development and Policy.

In Hyde Park, he and fellow Obama Scholar Mario Mazic, MAIDP ’19, came up with the idea for the National Center for Peace and Development, a nonprofit promoting democracy and a decrease in violence in Afghanistan.

Shortly after graduation, he returned to Afghanistan, where he began working for the government, continued refining the nonprofit and established a literacy and vocational tailoring program for displaced girls, a project for which he was named a Blossom-Hill Foundation Fellow.

Gunfire and a rapid Taliban takeover

The school was set to open on Aug. 15, 2021, the same day a cousin happened to be visiting Hamraz, who was residing on the outskirts of Kabul. The cousin wanted to see Hamraz’s government office. The two men hopped in a car that morning and headed for a bank where Hamraz was planning to withdraw money before arriving at work.

“The bank was completely full of people,” he recalled, “and there were long lines of people standing outside. I told the driver to go to the main branch and when we reached there, the situation was worse.”

Rumors were circulating that the Taliban, which had been intensifying attacks across the country that spring and regaining territory it had lost since the U.S. invasion in 2001, was moving closer to Kabul. Hamraz and his cousin happened upon gunfire and chaos near the Indian Embassy and directed the driver to take them to Hamraz’s home.

Map of Afghanistan
Map of Afghanistan

Roads were clogged with traffic. They reached one that led to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and saw masses of people running toward the airport. Members of the Afghan army were running to the city.

“We could not move even a single meter in an hour because the route was completely blocked,” Hamraz said. “I told the driver to take the car to his house. My cousin and I got out and started walking toward my house.”

They arrived safely. By sunset, members of the Taliban were passing by his house on motorcycles.

For Hamraz, the low point in his odyssey came that day, when he saw a democratic system of government—albeit deeply flawed—collapse.

“I knew the government was corrupt, but still it was a system,” he said, adding that he was surprised at how quickly the government and military fell. He expected negotiations would have occurred between the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani government.

“I cry very little in my life,” Hamraz said. “But on that day, when I saw the collapse of the system, that was a crying point for me.”

Sixteen months of uncertainty

Misho Ceko
Misho Ceko, COO and Senior Associate Dean

In Hyde Park, Ceko and others who had come to know Hamraz immediately started working to bring him back to UChicago. Knowing that Harris’s International Policy and Development Program had opportunities for someone with Hamraz’s skills, Ceko offered him the job of assistant director of the program and organized two GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for Hamraz and his family.

Then-Harris Dean Katherine Baicker, who on March 20 will become University Provost, was among several university administrators reaching out to elected officials and providing other support to Hamraz. The Obama Foundation helped arrange travel for Hamraz and his family, who flew between Afghanistan and Pakistan securing necessary documents. His fellow Obama Foundation Scholars helped pay his living costs temporarily after the Taliban takeover and provided financial support for him to obtain visas to Pakistan. Nick Seamons, Executive Director and Assistant Dean of Students at the university’s Office of International Affairs, provided advice and helped make acquiring a visa as seamless as possible. Harris Director of Human Resources Debra Gay was another key ally.

“There are probably too many people to name,” Ceko said. “It was literally a university-wide effort to help bring Rahma and his family here.”

During that turbulent time, the Taliban were too busy dealing with system change to devote attention to Hamraz, although the instability in Afghanistan created a great deal of anxiety for him and his family. Over the next two months, with the American Embassy in Afghanistan shuttered, he was receiving frequent messages checking on his wellbeing and trying to help him and his family obtain visas through Pakistan.

They moved to Islamabad in October and applied for visas to the U.S. but were rejected. Ceko’s optimism started flagging.

“It was just one thing after another,” he said. “I was extremely worried. I felt him losing hope and I was also starting to lose hope, but I didn’t want to show him that. Externally, I was very optimistic, trying to stay as positive as possible and make sure that he didn’t lose hope because once he loses all hope, then I think we probably would be dead in the water.”

The source of Ceko’s hope, he said, was the number of people working to rescue Hamraz.

Seeking a lower cost of living, Hamraz and his family in December moved to Peshawar in northern Pakistan, where his wife, Toorpekai, delivered their fourth child in February of 2022, a source of great joy but also a complication. It took until July to obtain an Afghan passport for their newborn child.

Hamraz and his Children
Hamraz and His Children

Also in July, UChicago sponsored him and his family for H1 visas, which allow highly educated foreign nationals to work in specialty fields in the U.S. The family was unable to remain in Pakistan while waiting for a decision on the visa application and returned to Afghanistan, where, remarkably, Hamraz continued scaling up his vocational education program for Afghan girls, enrolling an additional 250 participants.

In November, Hamraz was notified that his H1 visas were approved. He and his family returned to Pakistan and—after German airport officials nearly sent the family back to Afghanistan because they lacked COVID immunization cards—arrived at O’Hare International Airport on Dec. 3.

Over the next few weeks, the Hamraz family received vital housing support from the Chicago Refugee Coalition—especially from its Board President and former Obama Foundation Scholars Director at Harris, Jamia Jowers. Building Peaceful Bridges, a nonprofit that helps integrate newcomers to American society, also gave crucial help, Hamraz said. Afghan friends in Chicago provided prepared food and social invitations.

President Joe Biden
On April 14, 2021, President Joe Biden announced full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.

Hamraz has regrets about leaving Afghanistan. His desire was strong to stay and push for reform that would help the Afghan people facing the revived Taliban regime. But establishing and strengthening the vocational center coupled with the certainty that his family has a much brighter future in the U.S. convinced him that coming to Chicago was the best option.

Today, in the International Policy and Development Program, Hamraz supports the design and coordination of data collection, manages data, and writes research briefs. He also manages the program budget and operations, provides academic advice to students, and oversees career development activities.

Hamraz’s passion and commitment for making a difference in his home country remain strong. For the next three years, he said he plans to place his National Center for Peace and Development on firm footing, continue enhancing his vocational education center, and determine if he can earn a PhD that combines peacebuilding, economics, and public policy. Another option is becoming “a more effective practitioner through designing and implementing effective solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues.”

Ceko said Hamraz’s experience—a Harris graduate born and raised in Afghanistan and someone who has helped start social impact organizations there—is a valuable asset to the school.

“It’s a very unique perspective,” Ceko said. “He might be one of the only people in the world who can bring that perspective to our students.”

Tea and opportunity

Hamraz speaks at the 2018 Pearson Global Forum

Ceko has visited his friend several times since December. On the first visit, he brought care packages his children made for Hamraz’s children. He taught and played “Simon Says” with them. He shared tea with the family.

Ceko remembered feeling immense relief that Hamraz finally made it to Chicago and pride in the hard work of many people at the university to bring Hamraz to Chicago. He also understands that Hamraz’s burden remains great. Many of his relatives still live in Afghanistan. While he tries to build his life here, Hamraz is sending financial support to the family.

“As many problems as we have in this country,” Ceko said, “there are still opportunities for most people to succeed. When you step back and know that these four children will have an opportunity and a future here, I think that’s what we’re most proud of. This is a family of six now that can do something good for the world. That wasn’t going to be the case if we weren’t successful.”

Hamraz and children